Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Living the Pirate Life in Assassin's Creed IV

Robert Rath | 2 Jan 2014 12:00
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Turning Against the Crown

Like most Americans, I have an unconscious bias in favor of the British. Common ancestry plays a part of that, but I cemented it by spending my adolescent years with Horatio Hornblower, Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey. Net result: When I slipped the Jackdaw out of port for the first time, I was decidedly rooting for the King's colors. (The King's colours, I should say.)

For the first few hours I was the terror of the Spanish Crown. I hit shipping hard, plundered vessels and slugged it out with forts. When I spotted the Royal Navy, I gave them a respectful berth, sometimes firing a gun in salute. Once I even swept in to save an outgunned frigate captain who'd bitten off more than he could chew. Imagine my surprise when the ungrateful wretch turned his guns on me after I'd sent the Spaniards to the bottom. Instead of engaging, I turned and beat for the horizon to lick my wounds, deciding that I'd let the Brits fight their own battles. The exchange didn't turn me against the British, but it did rattle me-best to avoid my countrymen, I thought. I can live off the Spanish purse and avoid the English guns.

Betrayal and alienation didn't turn me pirate though, it was greed. I remember the exact moment it happened. We were limping off Nassau after a Spaniard took a chunk out of us, looking for an easy prize. The Jackdaw needed improve her broadside, but the Spanish ships on the horizon had naught but rum and canvas. Then my spyglass found an English brig, damaged, sailing alone, its belly full of metal. I could almost imagine Kenway toying with the end of the glass, making up his mind. Then I gave the order to let out the sails and sight the mortar. I took my first English vessel.

That journey would've been familiar to pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. As we've discussed before, many pirates had previously sailed under privateering charters or in the navy. Others, though without a charter, felt they were fighting a patriotic war by targeting only vessels from enemy nations. Governments indulged these notions of patriotic piracy during wartime, but once a war ended, a run-in with the Royal Navy would be enough for pirates to feel betrayed and alienated-to realize they were no longer part of their nation, but something else. Similarly, it wasn't unheard of for legitimate privateers to pillage their own shipping lanes out of greed. Both privateering and piracy are, after all, opportunistic ventures and sometimes the temptation of a lone merchantman was too much to resist. This ended up being the case for Edward Kenway when I was at the controls-he started out as a patriotic sea-rover and became an enemy of his own kind out of simple greed. As I fired the first volley at an English vessel, I remember thinking that it was just this once, just to get the cannons fixed.

It wasn't - it never is.

There are many tools developers use to portray a period. They can do it visually through graphics and art direction, through sound effects and music, or dialogue and characterization. But the best games craft a rules set that make players think like a historical person, making choices not because it's what they're supposed to do, but because it's the best thing to do given the circumstances. It's a storytelling method unique to videogames, and can bridge the gap between past and present so elegantly that for many players, it will pass unnoticed.

Robert Rath is a buccaneer and privateer currently terrorizing the shores of Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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